Do Behavioral Addictions Exist?

Do Behavioral Addictions Exist?Research shows some people feel a high from risky sex or competitive gambling that is similar to a chemical high from drugs or alcohol. Scientists continue to study the connection, but long-term studies reveal many behaviors are just as addictive as drugs or alcohol.

What is a Behavioral Addiction?

A behavioral addiction, sometimes known as a process addiction, describes a person’s compulsive need to act out a behavior over and over even though the behavior interferes with his or her ability to function in society or at work. A behavioral addiction includes actions related to primal needs, such as eating or sex, or encompasses other behaviors like gambling or playing video games.

Psychiatrists want to understand more about compulsive physical behaviors, specifically addictions to food, sex, exercise, shopping, electronic media and gambling. As more research is done on behavioral addictions, scientists learn about the way the brain responds to highly emotional actions. The scientific community already recognizes chemical addictions as a chronic disease, and behavioral addictions are considered very similar according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).

Behavioral Addictions and Substance Abuse

A person susceptible to a behavioral addiction is also susceptible to a substance addiction. Scientists have found that certain substances and specific repetitive behaviors alter neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a chemical or a feeling produced by a behavior, the high felt by a person is similar. This chemical reaction in the brain leads to compulsive behaviors according to a 1994 article in the journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity.

Researchers understand that there is a strong relationship between any kind of compulsive behavior and drug or alcohol addiction. For example a person may substitute an addiction to smoking with an addiction to eating. Offering desirable substitutes for behavioral addictions is especially important to keep a person from moving to another addiction.

Treatment Options for Behavioral Addictions

It is common for people with a behavioral addiction to develop a chemical addiction according to the Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity journal article. It’s crucial to treat co-occurring conditions at the same time through a coordinated program. A person who is addicted to drugs and sex will have a harder time recovering from a drug addiction if the sex addiction is not treated. In addition a person with a behavioral addiction may develop a drug or alcohol addiction as he or she tries to come to terms with the behavior.

Just as chemical addictions respond well to treatment, behavioral addictions are just as treatable. Studies show the same therapies and coping techniques offered for drug and alcohol addiction work well to change compulsive behaviors according to the Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity article.

The Psychiatric Community and Behavioral Addictions

There is scientific debate about the proper way to classify a behavioral addiction according to a 2010 article in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. A behavior that produces a short-term reward that compels a person to keep repeating the behavior, even if it causes drastically negative consequences, is considered addictive. Some researchers consider the compulsion to repeat dangerous behaviors as a sign of an impulse control disorder, while others consider it a behavioral or process addiction.

The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies some excessive behaviors as addiction such as gambling and Internet gaming. Others, however, such as repetitive sexual behaviors, need more research before being classified.

While the APA does not recognize sex addiction in its manual, it released a description of hypersexual disorder in 2010. Symptoms of the disorder include an individual’s desire to commit sexual acts even when there is a risk for physical or emotional harm to self or others.

Defining Behavioral Addiction

The Drug and Alcohol Abuse journal article offers a list of similarities between a chemical addiction and a behavioral addiction. Both actions and drugs and alcohol have the potential to cause compulsive behaviors. Studies in the following areas show links between behavioral and chemical addictions:

  • Natural history
  • Phenomenology
  • Tolerance
  • Comorbidity
  • Overlapping genetic contribution
  • Neurobiological mechanisms
  • Response to treatment

Need Help Finding Behavioral Addiction Treatment?

There is no reason to struggle with an addiction alone. Both behavioral and chemical addictions respond well to scientifically proven therapies. If you or a loved one is having trouble controlling dangerous behaviors, we can help.

The first step is being ready to get well. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at our toll-free helpline to provide options. Don’t wait to find the help you need. Call us today, and get started on a more fulfilling, productive life.